Seven ways Trump can improve ties with India

The United States cannot afford disruptions in its work as a nation, either domestically or abroad.

Published: 17th November 2016 10:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th November 2016 01:04 PM   |  A+A-


US President elect Donald Trump. (File photo | AP)

Beyond the din of post-election protests lies a place where many Americans – as well as like-minded observers in India and elsewhere – who lament the selection of Donald Trump as president of the United States can seek relief from their dismay and anxiety. There, concerned Americans will find a role that is critically important to the capable functioning of a democratic system. 

It has various names, including the “loyal opposition.” The point is that – without questioning the legitimacy of a government that emerges from a free and fair election – those who find themselves philosophically in disagreement with it have every right to speak out in a clear voice and hold the new leadership accountable. That way, the political system has a chance to evolve, rather than devolve (as some observers pessimistically predict for the United States). It is also not too early to be thinking about the next election; better results happen when strategizing and follow-up efforts are proactive instead of reactive. 

In the meantime, the United States cannot afford disruptions in its work as a nation, either domestically or abroad. More specifically, relations between the United States and India, as well as other countries, must proceed. 

So, how might Indo-U.S. ties develop under the incoming Trump administration? For insights, I turned to various specialists, including Ronak Desai, an affiliate of the India and South Asia Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a Fellow at New America, a think tank and civic enterprise in Washington, D.C. Desai says “if a Clinton presidency would have represented continuity in U.S.-India relations, a Trump triumph has injected some uncertainty.” 

On the one hand, Desai continues, Trump expressly declared last month that the United States and India would be “best friends,” should he win the White House. Such sentiments are consistent with the bipartisan consensus that has formed around the growing strategic partnership between the United States and India over the past decade and a half.  

However, Trump's views on multiple issues could potentially generate friction between the two countries. This is particularly likely in areas such as trade, immigration and climate change. Trump's “isolationist and nativist tendencies also remain cause for concern,” according to Desai, especially if the president-elect follows through on his promises to dramatically reduce immigration and diminish U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. Still, Desai notes, there is reason to remain cautiously optimistic that Trump will align his effusive rhetoric for stronger U.S-India ties with reality. 

In that event, the bipartisan consensus supporting the strategic partnership is likely to endure. 

What are the key issues that demand attention from the United States and India at present? They remain largely the same, Desai observes: strengthening strategic and economic ties, increasing trade, combatting extremism, and promoting regional and international stability. In his opinion, combatting extremism and enhancing security cooperation will likely garner greater prominence and importance under Trump. The central question, which Desai correctly identifies, is “whether the full range of issues affecting U.S.-India ties, and on which the two countries cooperate, will be afforded the same level of priority moving forward.”

I also sought input from Brigadier General (ret.) Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project (ASP), a non-partisan public policy and research organization in Washington, D.C., and his staff. Cheney and Andrew Holland, ASP’s director of studies and a senior fellow for energy and climate, indicate that – like everything in America’s international relations – the U.S. relationship with India is suddenly open to reinterpretation under the incoming Trump administration. They do not anticipate significant changes, though. According to Cheney and Holland, “there are no major trade deals that Trump would want to ‘renegotiate’ (like he wishes to do with NAFTA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership), nor is there a treaty alliance between the nations that he has questioned (like the U.S.-Japan alliance or NATO).” 

If anything, Cheney and Holland say, Trump may lean more towards India. Why? Because that posture would provide a counterweight to China in Asia, and strengthen India’s role as a partner in anti-terrorism operations across South Asia and the Middle East.

On the issue of climate change, Cheney and Holland suggest the major discontinuity between the Obama and Trump administrations in the context of Indo-U.S. relations will be over international climate policy. While the United States has worked with India and pressed it hard on climate policy in both the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement, Cheney and Holland say, the Trump approach will likely not follow suit and may even seek to abrogate American commitments to those treaties. In response, they advise, India should push the new U.S. administration to ensure that it meets America’s climate commitments. 
Further, Cheney and Holland are right to remind us that the United States remains concerned about tensions between India and Pakistan, especially in light of their nuclear arms. The two countries need to show restraint, embrace cooperation and resist military confrontation, Cheney and Holland recommend, and they feel confident Trump’s administration will share their view.

Lastly, I talked with Akhil Gupta, director of the Center for India and South Asia at the University of California, Los Angeles. He expects the new administration will be very friendly towards India, will likely take tougher stances on China and Pakistan, and could move closer to Russia. That might create a new geopolitics in South Asia, Gupta says, prompting Pakistan to get cozier with China and distance itself from the United States. If that happens, he anticipates seeing greater military and diplomatic cooperation between the United States and India.

The major issue for India, Gupta says, will be free trade in services and other goods. If the incoming Trump administration “clamps down on B-1 visas and IT enabled-services exports, it will impact the Indian economy in a big way,” he cautions. As for other issues, the sale of military hardware and nuclear power will be important items for the bilateral agenda. Gupta also warns that if racist attacks against people of Indian origin in the United States go up, it will put a strain on relations between the two countries.

Gupta notes that the top priority for India should be to improve the lives of large numbers of people living in abject poverty, but immediately adds that such an outcome is unlikely to gain the attention of policymakers in either New Delhi or Washington. Aside from that issue, Gupta believes the chief priorities should be the danger of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, and the achievement of a peaceful political solution in Kashmir.
To the opinions expressed above, I would add the following, specific suggestions for President-elect Trump to set Indo-U.S. relations on the proper course upon taking office:

1. Immediately extend a firm hand of friendship, respect, consultation and cooperation to India.

2. Designate Indian-Americans for key appointive positions in the Trump administration, especially in areas that affect U.S.-India ties.

3. Invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit the White House as soon as possible.

4. Begin planning for a reciprocal trip by Trump to India early in his term. 

5. Publicly recognize India as the linchpin U.S. relationship in South Asia.

6. Re-commit to closer coordination with India in areas such as global and South Asian security, defense and counter-terrorism.

7. Strongly support India’s bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
An opportunity exists during the next few months for the Trump transition team to take a careful look at U.S.-India ties, and prepare the new administration to define for Americans and Indians what the nature of that relationship will be. It is time to move past fulsome campaign rhetoric, and embrace substantive policy positions that will shape and reinforce America’s much-needed strategic embrace of India.

John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He also co-chairs The India Center at UCF.

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